For those of us charged with researching the sociology and the history of the underworld, deconstructing myths is standard fare. As students of my organized crime classes over the years will tell anyone willing to listen, I spend the first few weeks of each semester addressing the intellectual baggage most bring with them when it comes to organized crime. My experience researching the NBA betting scandal, complete with its attendant media coverage and considerable amount of public reaction, is but the latest example of how tiny strands of facts so quickly grow into wholly unfounded (but fascinating and gripping!) legends about the underworld. Before continuing with this assuredly annoying and dispiriting post, I should point out that my primary blog is subtitled (emphasis added) “The Social Construction of Organized Crime” precisely because this sort of thing is unfortunately all too necessary. Perhaps just as importantly, the main reason I took on the NBA betting scandal project was to gain an understanding of the role – if any – organized crime plays in the upper echelon of the sports betting underworld. Needless to say, this particular issue gets considerable attention in Gaming the Game, far beyond what little appears below and elsewhere on my blogs.
* On July 20, 2007, the New York Post broke the NBA betting scandal story with a piece written by Murray Weiss – “NBA in a ‘Fix'”. Among other things, Weiss wrote “The FBI is investigating an NBA referee who allegedly was betting on basketball games – including ones he was officiating during the past two seasons – as part of an organized-crime probe in the Big Apple, The Post has learned…An FBI organized-crime squad in the bureau’s flagship New York office is handling the case…The FBI got wind of the scheme while conducting a separate mob investigation.”
Within a week’s time, Tim Donaghy had been identified as the NBA referee and pro gambler Jimmy Battista was pegged as the “alleged bookie”.
Because a specialized FBI unit focused on organized crime cases made the discovery, initial media reports predictably considered the mob angle. Reporters, especially those who worked crime beats and who had quality law enforcement and “street” sources, soon discounted the supposed involvement of the mob in the scandal, however. See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.
It is difficult to convey to persons who pay scant attention to organized crime and the federal government’s treatment of mob cases how odd the 8/15/07 release is if there was even a hint of mob involvement. For examples of how the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, respectively, announce actual organized crime prosecutions involving “mob associates”, see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. There are literally dozens of readily-available examples, and you can also search the site of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia mob cases are handled. You’ll soon notice that, if anything, the government amplifies mob cases with the knowledge such hype garners media coverage. Headlines for the real “O.C.” cases linked above are predictably – and distinctly – different than any releases or public pronouncements by federal authorities in the NBA betting scandal cases against co-conspirators Donaghy, Battista, and Martino. For instance, those releases linked above respectively announce (emphasis added), “Three Gambino Organized Crime Family Associates Indicted…,” “Genovese Family Associate Sentenced…,” “Sixty-Two Defendants Indicted, Including Gambino Organized Crime Family Acting Boss, Acting Underboss, Consigliere, and Members and Associates…,” “Colombo Organized Crime Family Captain and Five Associates Indicted…,” “Colombo Organized Crime Family Acting Boss, Underboss, and Ten Other Members and Associates Indicted…,” “Acting Boss and Longtime Associate of Gambino Crime Family Charged…,” and “Additional Charges Files Against Acting Boss and Longtime Associate of Gambino Crime Family.”
* The “mob” issue re-surfaced briefly after the Donaghy defense team asked the court, in May 2008, to remove the seal on the government’s “5K” filing in support of a reduced sentence for cooperating witness Donaghy. The letter, which was released on June 2, 2008 following the government’s consent and Judge Amon’s related order, included a comment on Donaghy’s supposed state of mind upon entering the betting conspiracy: “Battista told Donaghy that ‘you don’t want anyone from New York visiting your wife and kids.’ Over the preceding years, Donaghy had come to believe that Battista had organized crime connections, and so he interpreted ‘New York’ to be the Mafia.”
This single, unsupported Donaghy allegation in the government’s 5K filing represents the lone reference to organized crime in the months and months of filings and public utterances by the feds concerning the NBA betting scandal cases.
* Though Donaghy’s assertion had little influence on federal authorities, his attorney nevertheless mentioned the unsupported mob claim no less than five times in a May 19, 2008 filing as Donaghy was positioning himself for sentencing.
* The federal government, however, never revisited the organized crime issue during the sentencing filings, appearances, or public utterances. Thus, in the entire history of the scandal, each and every discussion of organized crime and the NBA betting scandal from that point (May 2008) forward stems from a single, unsupported Tim Donaghy claim.
During the media appearances in support of his book, Donaghy routinely hyped the supposed role of organized crime in the scandal. For example, here is a montage of Donaghy describing “the mob” visiting him in December 2006 at the PHL Airport Marriott and the chilling effect it had on him:
[Note: It is unclear precisely which media appearance is being referenced by the official above, but see here for a possible source.]
* On Donaghy’s repeated claims throughout his book tour that he was beaten in prison by “someone who claimed he was associated with the New York mob” because Donaghy “cooperated with the government”.
Donaghy writes (on pages 223-24) of the prison climate to which he was subjected: “As I walked around the institution, it became painfully evident that gambling was everywhere,” after which Donaghy, the self-described gambling addict, wrote to the warden pointing “to the widespread illegal gambling that was occurring in the institution and the temptation I was experiencing as a result.” Soon, according to Donaghy, word spread that he had complained about the gambling that killed numerous hours for many inmates, and “the warden instituted a crackdown on gambling, sending guards to conduct unexpected raids on card games and to search the lockers of suspected ringleaders. It was pure pandemonium and all eyes were once again on me.” According to Donaghy (p. 225), it was soon thereafter that an inmate called out to him, “Rat, rat, rat,” and hit him with a paint roller in the knee.
I have listened to dozens of Donaghy’s “interviews” dating to December 2009, and I have never heard a word of this context during his media appearances. Instead, Donaghy has encouraged an alternative – and far more sensational (read: book-selling) and sympathy-inducing explanation, namely that the inmate said, “I’m from New York, and I have friends in the mob!” Donaghy routinely elaborates on the mob angle by saying such persons would have an interest in harming him since many of these inmates wound up in prison as the result of government cooperators like Donaghy. Here is a montage I compiled of Donaghy’s media appearances in which he discusses this:
When I contacted various people within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the FBI while researching the scandal, Donaghy’s claim of a mob assault was routinely met with officials chuckling at the suggestion of organized crime’s role, and (unsurprisingly) not a single interview subject was aware of evidence supporting this alleged motivation for the prison incident.
Perhaps to put a final point on this I should quote FBI Supervisory Special Agent Phil Scala (ret.), whom Donaghy can’t mention enough as a supporter of all-things-Donaghy. SSA Scala, who in his capacity as head of the Gambino Squad (the unit which housed the NBA betting scandal investigation) was privy to much of the probe despite not being familiar with numerous details of it. When I interviewed former SSA Scala, he had this to say (not unlike several of his former colleagues) regarding Donaghy’s supposed prison assault in the much-hyped context of organized crime: “If organized crime wanted to hurt Donaghy, he wouldn’t be around today.”